Syrian Rebels Seize 20 U.N. Soldiers in the Golan Heights

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Syria's civil war entangled the United Nations peacekeeping operation in the disputed Golan Heights between Syria and Israel for the first time on Wednesday, when 30 insurgent fighters seized a group of 20 armed peacekeepers investigating a damaged observation post and threatened to treat them as enemy prisoners if Syrian forces remained in the area.

As the war has worsened, the Golan region has been periodically disrupted by armed clashes and occasional artillery or mortar bombardments that have become a source of concern to Israel. But United Nations officials said that members of the Golan peacekeeping mission, officially known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, had never before been seized by any of the combatants in the conflict.

Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the Departments of Peacekeeping and Field Support at the United Nations, which oversees the Golan operation, said the peacekeepers were detained near an observation post that had been evacuated this past weekend after what she called "heavy combat in proximity" near the village of Al Jamlah, in the southern part of the operation's region of control. She said that the mission was "dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution," and that the Syrian authorities had been asked to help.

Ms. Guerrero said she had no further information on the insurgents involved or the nationalities of the detainees. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain with a network of contacts inside Syria, said they were Filipino.

A video uploaded on YouTube by a group that identified itself as the Martyrs of Yarmouk claimed responsibility and said the peacekeepers would be held until Syrian government forces had withdrawn from the area around Al Jamlah. The video does not show any of the captives, but United Nations vehicles are visible. A speaker in the video warns in Arabic: "If the withdrawal does not take place within 24 hours, we will deal with those guys like war prisoners. And praise to God."

The threat to the peacekeepers underscored the widening risks that the Syria conflict is destabilizing its borders. On Monday, more than 40 Syrian soldiers who had sought temporary safety in Iraq were killed in an ambush as the Iraqi military was transporting them back to the Syrian border.

At the United Nations, Eduardo del Buey, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, suggested that officials had long feared the possibility of harm to the peacekeepers. "As the Secretary General has said repeatedly, the spillover effects of the Syrian crisis pose a danger to the region as a whole and to the countries and the areas in the neighboring states around it, and UNDOF is no exception," he said, using the acronym for the Golan peacekeeping mission. "They are in a zone where the spillover could be of consequence."

Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin of Russia, which holds the monthly presidency of the Security Council for March, said members had been briefed about the Golan situation but that he could provide no further information on what precisely had happened. Mr. Churkin, whose government is a main supporter of the Syrian government in the conflict and a strong critic of the armed rebels, urged the captors to release the peacekeepers immediately.

"They should stop this very dangerous course of action," he told reporters.

Linking the Golan situation to the Iraq killings two days earlier, Mr. Churkin said: "Some people are trying very hard to extend the Syrian conflict. Today there is this incident. This is no-man's land between Syria and Israel. Somebody is trying very hard to blow this crisis up."

With a force of 1,011 troops contributed by Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines, the United Nations observer force in the Golan is responsible for maintaining the fragile calm between Israeli and Syrian troops at the demilitarized zone along Syria's Golan frontier, established after a cease-fire ended the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

The detention of the peacekeepers came less than a week after Croatia announced it was withdrawing its soldiers from the Golan force, following reports that Croatia was selling weapons funneled to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia, a main supporter of the insurgency. The Croatian government denied the reports but said they had put the safety of the Croatian peacekeepers at risk. It is unclear which country or countries will replace the departing Croatians.

News of the peacekeeper seizure came on a day of other precedents in the two-year-old Syrian conflict, which has left more than 70,000 people dead.

Antigovernment fighters battling military forces in the north-central city of Raqqa, where fighting has raged for days, released a video on YouTube corroborating their claims they had arrested the provincial governor and the provincial secretary general of President Bashar al-Assad's Baath Party, which activists said were the two highest-ranking Assad loyalists captured so far. The video showed both men seated uncomfortably on an ornate couch, apparently in the governor's palace, surrounded by insurgents.

The United Nations refugee agency in Geneva said the number of Syrians who had fled to neighboring countries surpassed the 1 million mark, coupling the announcement with a renewed appeal for more aid. "Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster," the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said in a statement.

In Cairo, officials at the Arab League announced that it had formally awarded Syria's seat to the Syrian opposition coalition, a symbolically important step aimed at further disenfranchising Mr. Assad's government. The opposition was asked to send a representative who could occupy the seat provisionally until the formation of a new Syrian government.

How soon such a representative could be chosen, however, remained unclear. The opposition coalition, representing a broad array of anti-Assad groups, has continually postponed decisions like choosing a provisional prime minister.

In London on Wednesday, Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Britain was prepared to supply armored all-terrain vehicles, body armor and other "nonlethal military equipment" to the Syrian opposition, apparently nudging his government's public support for the rebels beyond the food and medical supplies pledged last week by the United States.

"Diplomacy is taking far too long and the prospect of an immediate breakthrough is slim," Mr. Hague said, stressing that the promised new support was designed to protect civilian foes of President Assad, not to arm rebel soldiers.

"Each month of violence in Syria means more death, wider destruction, larger numbers of refugees, and bloodier military confrontation," Mr. Hague told Parliament.

His remarks made clear that the offer was directed primarily at civilian figures in the opposition to enable them to "move around more freely."

Rick Gladstone reported from New York and Alan Cowell from London. Reporting was contributed by Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon;, David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; and Liam Stack from New York.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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